Eyes scanning their laptop screens, fingers crackling over the keyboards as codes and patterns appear, college and university students all over the globe are surreptitiously tapping into government and corporate security systems.
Breaking into fake systems, that is, as part of their training to become professional hackers.
It's one of the fastest-growing professions and one of the largest jobs in demand these days, according to WANTED Analytics.
“There's a lot of interest here from (Department of) Defense contractors, and banks, in hiring for these types of jobs,” said Robert Bunge, associate professor for the College of Engineering and Information Sciences at DeVry University. “The trend is definitely continuing upward.”
For the DoD, that means companies like Boeing, Northrop Grunmans, and Lockheed, as well as corporations in industries with high stakes for protecting security, such as the military, and financial institutions like Chase and Bank of America.
Chase alone spends roughly $200 million annually to protect client information and systems from cyber attacks, and that will increase dramatically over the next three years, said regional spokeswoman Darcy Donahoe-Wilmot.
“More than 600 employees across the company are currently dedicated to protecting information and systems,” she noted, “and this number is likely to grow, too.”
At Tacoma-based Internet Identity, which since 2004 has provided “threat intelligence collaboration” for national corporations and government agencies, CEO Lars Harvey concurred with the trend.
“The industry is growing like gangbusters, and we expect it to only keep growing,” he said. “Everyone is cutting their spending in a lot of places, but cyber security isn't one of them.”
Cyber security has become such a key issue, in fact, that Internet Identity staffing has jumped nearly 25 percent, to 67 employees, just in the past year.
“But the issue with cyber security is that it changes so rapidly it's hard for schools to prepare students other than giving them the tools for the problems of today,” added Harvey, who hires more recent graduates from local schools like DeVry, University of Washington Tacoma and Tacoma Community College than he does experienced industry techs.
It's all about having the right skill set, but there's also no substitute for firsthand experience, he said.
That's why companies aren't just adding jobs and actively recruiting college students in these tracks. They're also huge sponsors of cyber security training competitions, which pit hacking team against hacking team to see who can first crack the other's codes.
Said Bunge, also a founding member of South Sound Cyber Sports, which stages such competitions around the region, “There's a lot of different industries that are committed to sponsoring these events because, they're aiming to eventually create the type of workforce that they need.”
One school at the forefront of preparing that workforce is the University of Washington's Tacoma campus. In 2009, it created an undergrad information technology program that's now the main academic track for more than 600 students. Within that, half of all students are today focusing on cyber security and information assurance.
The program was so popular, in fact, that this year UWT is offering its first Master's of Cyber Security and Leadership, in conjunction with Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Milgard School of Business. Right off the bat, 30 students enrolled, a combination of military students, Boeing employees, IT professionals, teachers, and workers in career transition.
Andrew Fry, assistant director of industry partnerships and a lecturer for the school's Institute of Technology, said that his department had been considering an information and cyber security program for years before its implementation. Now that it's been up and running for awhile, and still expanding, the investment is paying off, and handsomely.
“Today what we can show is an undergraduate concentration in cyber security, a Master's in cyber security, an interest by local companies in providing scholarships in cyber security, and companies who are regularly recruiting employees in the industry,” he said. “We fully expect that to only grow to an even greater degree.”
Retired Army Col. Dr. Bryan Gota, an Institute of Technology faculty member, emphasized that cyber security and information assurance graduates are especially in demand in the Puget Sound area. The regional industry deficit was hammered home to him when some of his students were being chosen to work on a specific “real world business project” at Microsoft.
The company wanted not just some, but all, of his students, said Gota. Of course, that was impossible, as the department had other student projects in the queue.
“But it just showed us that Microsoft can't hire security professionals fast enough for all of their departments,” he said.
“Every company in this area has some kind of security concerns, and the demand keeps increasing.”
To fulfill this expanding career chasm, the UWT Master's program has a unique aspect found at only one other university on the East Coast, said spokesman Mike Wark.
“You see people who know cyber security well, and you see people who can lead, but there are few people who can do both,” he said. “What our graduates will come away with is that rare skill set.”
With the strong undergrad track and the blended Master's program, Wark added that the school expects the department's enrollment to double by 2017. Just in 2012, student numbers jumped 29 percent.
Ultimately, what this means for the next generation of cyber security and information tech workers who are just in school now is that there will be more jobs, and more ways to move up the corporate ladder, said UWT Institute of Technology director Rob Friedman.
Specifically, the rise of the Chief Information Security Officer.
“As companies grow and continue to use the Internet, a whole new level of employment has opened up all across business,” Friedman concluded. “It's all about maintaining a sophisticated security posture. And any business owner who's not interested in that is putting their company at risk.”